Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Papyrocentric Performativity is a sub-site of Overlord of the Über-Feral, where further book-reviews are sometimes posted.

Advertisements

God GuideA Guide to Tolkien, David Day (Octopus 1993)

The Catcher and the RyeThe Biology of Flowers, Eigil Holm, ill. by Thomas Bredsdorff and Peter Nielsen (Penguin Nature Guides 1979)

Dayzed and ContusedThe Greatest Footballer You Never Saw: The Robin Friday Story, Paul McGuigan and Paolo Hewitt (Mainstream 1997)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

God Guide

A Guide to Tolkien, David Day (Octopus 1993)

If someone is a famous writer, then it’s certain they’ll have biographers, critics and other analysts. And it’s likely that they’ll be better writers than those who write about them. Often much better. That’s certainly true of Lytton Strachey and Michael Holroyd or George Orwell and Robert Colls.

But it’s not true of J.R.R. Tolkien and David Day. Whatever his merits – and my readings of Lord of the Rings (1954-5) and The Hobbit (1937) reached double figures long ago – Tolkien just isn’t a very good writer. He’s clumsy, he’s hackneyed and his ambition far exceeded his abilities. And so it turns out that David Day, the author of this short but interesting guide to Tolkien’s world, is a better writer than Tolkien. You could almost say that Tolkien provides the rough gems before Day cuts and polishes them:

Galadhrim

The forest that in the Second Age of the Sun was first named Laurelindórenan, “land of the valley of singing gold”, and later Lothlórien, “land of blossoms dreaming”, and even by some Lórien, “dreamland”, was east of the Misty Mountains by the Silverlode, which flows into the Great River Anduin. It was the Gold Wood, where the tallest trees on Middle-earth grew. They were called the Mallorn trees and were the most beautiful of trees in Mortal Lands. Their bark was silver and grey, their blossoms golden and their leaves green and gold.

Within the forest was the concealed Elven kingdom of the Galadhrim, the “tree-people”, who made their homes on platforms called telain, or flets, high in the branches of the sheltering Mallorn.


Woses

In the War of the Ring a strange primitive folk called the Woses came to aid the Rohirrim and Dúnedain in breaking the Siege of Gondor. These wild woodland folk lived in the ancient Forest of Druadan, which was in Anórien, below the White Mountains. They knew woodcraft better than any other folk, for they lived as naked animals invisibly among the trees for many ages and cared not for the company of other peoples. They were weather-worn, short-legged, thick-armed and stumpy-bodied. […] In the First Age of the Sun, these were the people who lived in harmony with the Haladin in Beleriand, who called them Drûgs. To the Elves they were known as the Drúedain; to the Orcs they were the Oghor-hai and to the Rohirrim the Rógin.


Nazgûl

in the twenty-third century of the Third Age of the Sun, in Middle0earth there arose nine mighty wraiths who in the Black Speech of Orcs were named the Nazgûl, which is “Ringwraiths”. And of all the evil servants and generals of Sauron the Ring Lord, these proved to be the greatest.

David Day writes more crisply and effectively about Tolkien’s world than Tolkien does, but Tolkien’s flaws may be part of his appeal. He’s subtler than I and many others have sometimes given him credit for, but he wasn’t a genius. Instead, he was an intelligent, conscientious and highly knowledgeable scholar who had a penchant for what he himself called “sub-creation”. There is only one true Creator, God, and only one true Creation, the Universe and the creatures that inhabit it.

But some of those creatures have the power to sub-create, that is, arrange the materials granted them by God to things of their own. It might be a statue or it might be a story. Tolkien was a sub-creator of stories – and of sometimes powerful art to illustrate those stories. He would have said that he was sub-creating in honour of his Creator and of Catholicism. If so, he wasn’t very effective. The Lord of the Rings is not known for bringing its readers to Christianity, let alone to Catholicism, but it does many other things. This guide condenses its appeal and helps you better understand Tolkien the Sub-Creator. There’s everything here from Gods, gods and goblins to Witchkings, wizards and Woses.

The Biology of Flowers, Eigil Holm, illustrated by Thomas Bredsdorff and Peter Nielsen (Penguin Nature Guides 1979)

An excellent short introduction to one of the most fascinating areas of biology. Flowers are results of millions of years of interaction between plants and animals. The first animals were insects, the next were birds, and the last so far, at least in nature, were bats. Flight is the important thing, you see, because it allows pollinators to travel far, fast and accurately between individual flowers. To take advantage of wings, plants have evolved to advertise with color, shape and scent, but those advertisements aren’t necessarily honest. Some animals are paid for their services with nectar and pollen, or even with seeds, but others are tricked into cooperating or even turned into drug-addicts.

Helleborines of the genus Epipactis, an orchid named after a plant supposed in ancient times to cure madness, actually induce a kind of madness in the wasps that pollinate them: a wasp sometimes becomes so drunk on Helleborine nectar that “it cannot fly, but walks from flower to flower, covered in pollen clubs” (the helleborine glues a little stick of pollen to the wasp’s head as it drinks the nectar). The wasps can even blunder into spiders’ webs while under the influence or end up too weak to move, caught on the sticky helleborine flower. Apart from bee-orchids, flowers pollinated by bees generally play fair. But bees don’t always play fair back: some flowers are designed for only the heaviest bumblebees to enter, so the lighter “buff-tailed bumble-bee (Bombus terrestris) sometimes steals the nectar by biting holes in the corolla tube” (the base of the flower where nectar is stored).

Talk of “playing fair” is anthropomorphism, of course: selfish genes take whatever advantage they can and if a plant has evolved to feed an animal, it’s because the animal performs some service for it in return. Plants that don’t use animals to reproduce, like the grasses, can seem less interesting at first glance, but if you wait patiently by a field of rye (Secale cereale) in summer, you might change your mind. The dull-looking rye-flowers will be waiting patiently too: for a “sudden lowering of light intensity” caused by a cloud passing in front of the sun, which will trigger the simultaneous opening of thousands of stigmas and a huge cloud of pollen. There’s a lot more to even the dullest-looking flower — and plant — than immediately meets the eye, and this book will give you many mind-expanding examples, beside enriching your understanding of those aspects of flowers that do immediately meet the eye (and nose): their shapes, colors and scents.

The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw: The Robin Friday Story, Paul McGuigan and Paolo Hewitt (Mainstream 1997)

Excellent premise, execrable execution. That’s how you could sum up this book. I thought it would be a proper biography, but it turned out to be collection of newspaper clippings and extracts from interviews with the relatives, friends and acquaintances of Robin Friday, the legendarily skilful and anarchic footballer who dazzled fans of Reading and Cardiff City before dying of drink, drugs and debauchery at the age of 38.

And yes, that’s right: 38. If you’re not that age now, you soon will be. If you’re older, you won’t have lived half Friday’s life. Or so he would have told you. Like Kurt Cobain, he thought it was better to burn out than fade away. But if he’d used the fuel of his talent more carefully, could he have been one of the all-time greats? Possibly, but it’s much easier to look good when you’re surrounded by mediocre players. Friday looked good at Reading, then at Cardiff City, but neither Reading nor Cardiff was a big club with the best players.

Then again, the most skilful and successful players today would find it difficult to cope with the tackling and physical intimidation of Friday’s day. Hard-man defenders dished it out to Friday and he dished it right back. He never wore shin-pads and often came off the pitch bruised, battered and bleeding. Or concussed after an elbow in the head. But he could come back from a pub or night-club in the same way, because he enjoyed fighting and exercising his will to win. He liked life the way he liked his music: loud. He was a heavy-metal fan and brought the blood-and-thunder of his records to his football. That’s why he had a bad disciplinary record, as you can see sports-reporters lament again and again in the clippings. Presenting Friday’s life like that has its appeal. The book mixes pop-charts and snippets of world-news in with the reports about Friday and other cult-players, so you almost feel as though you’re back in the 1970s, following Reading’s push for promotion in the local paper or watching Cardiff try and fail to turn Friday into a star. But why couldn’t the book have had both clippings and a proper narrative?

Well, Paul McGuigan was a member of Oasis and had an image of lumpen stupidity to maintain. Write a proper book? Fook off. And he wouldn’t have wanted to put his name to a proper book that some other cunt had written. At least, that’s how I like to see it, being a dedicated Oasisophobe. But there is room to appreciate beauty and the transcendent even in the soul of a member of Oasis. Men like Paul McGuigan undoubtedly like Friday’s toughness and thuggish side, but it’s not the thugs and bullies of football who become the true legends. George Best was far too small and delicate to be a thug. It was his skill that made him a legend. His drinking and womanizing were only the icing on the cake.

Friday wasn’t at Best’s level, but he could have matched or surpassed other ’70s legends like Rodney Marsh, Frank Worthington and Stan Bowles, with their silky skills and their balls of steel. And ’70s nostalgia is now a large part of what has made Friday a cult-figure. Men were men and football was football in those days. Or football was thuggery enlivened with skill.

You get some impression of the 1970s from the unrelieved stream of clippings and personal anecdotes, but this book could have been so much better. Irvine Welsh gives it the kiss of death in his banal introduction: “Yeah, perhaps not a lot of us did get the chance to see Robin Friday play, but those that did are just that wee bit more enriched as a result. And that’s what it’s all about.” No, it’s about much more than that and you get glimpses here of a might-have-been-great from a vanished culture.

In a World of Adolescent Voyeurism…

One Human Gargoyle……

Maintained a Core Commitment………

To Key Counter-Cultural Values…………

Norman Nekrophile is…

…SLIMESNIFFER…

(Out soon on Visceral Visions…)



Elsewhere other-esotericizable…

Headpress Bokos……
Killing for Culture…
Night of the Necrophile……
The Stockport Slayer… (a seriously sinister story)

Bullets and ButterfliesMad Dog Killers: The Story of a Congo Mercenary, Ivan Smith (Helion / 30° South Publishers 2012)

Jaundiced on GeorgeGeorge Orwell: English Rebel, Robert Colls (Oxford University Press 2013)

Crabsody in ViewRSPB Handbook of the Seashore, Maya Plass (Bloomsbury 2013)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Mad Dog Killers: The Story of a Congo Mercenary, Ivan Smith (Helion / 30° South Publishers 2012)

War is one of the most intense experiences a human being can undergo. Films or computer-games might give you a good idea of what war looks like and sounds like, but they can’t yet tell you what it feels like. This book can. Ivan Smith is a natural story-teller but not a polished writer. That adds to the authenticity of Mad Dog Killers. He’s an ordinary man who saw, did, heard, felt, and smelt some extraordinary things.

But that suggests he’s not so ordinary after all. He had to be tough to fight and survive in the Congo as a mercenary in the Armée Nationale Congolaise during the 1960s. But he isn’t a psychopath, because he’s still haunted by some of the deaths he dealt out or witnessed. Many of his fellow mercenaries were definitely psychopaths. On his own account, he owes his life to one of the worst, a “nerveless and totally ruthless man” called Boeta, who befriended him and watched his back in the barracks and on the battle-field. Boeta comes alive on the page thanks to death. He enjoyed dishing it out and was never happier than in the middle of a fire-fight. He could make night-clubbing go with a bang too:

Boeta eventually signed up for four contracts in a row and on the second one, some months after I had returned to a normal life, he visited a nightclub in Leopoldville [now Kinshasa]. The jazz band refused to play the music he requested. It was in the early hours of the morning so he would have been very drunk. He opened fire on the offending band with an FN [machine-gun]* on automatic fire and killed them all, as well as a couple of other patrons. The one band member turned out to be a relative of a high-ranking government official so Boeta was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. A week later he was back with his Commando; the funds he had accumulated from looting had allowed him to buy his way out of it all. (ch. 4, pg. 43 – *FN = Fabrique Nationale, the Belgian arms-manufacturer)

Later in the book, Boeta makes a visit to a “tatty café” go with a bang too: “The pistol came up and stuck in the waiter’s ear. The shot was muffled and blood and brains sprayed from the exit wound and splashed the wall and roof.” (ch. 11, pg. 155) What had the black waiter done? He’d jokingly claimed to be a “Simba”, or one of the rebels against whom the mercenaries were fighting. So Boeta casually murdered him. Earlier, he and another mercenary had casually murdered a black stranger because no-one could understand what he was saying after he was left with them by some white soldiers from an unknown unit:

“Hey, Harry, you speak Frog, what is he saying?” I asked.

“No, man, it is not French. The bugger is giving me a headache. Wish he would shut up.”

“Good idea. Watch this. Stupid Simba, you should have been quiet.” Boeta got up and beckoned the loudly complaining man over. “Stand over there, you dumb fucker.” He pointed to the edge of the bridge and waved the man to stand there.

Pete, one of the commandos who happened to have been at school with me, but was two years my junior, got up and went to join Boeta.

“Man, I can’t believe that nutcase. Surely the bloke can see it coming?” Harry puffed blue clouds of smoke.

“Don’t think they will do it, will they?” was my anxious complaint.

Boeta and Pete suddenly put up their rifles and fired from the hip, on automatic, long bursts. The complaining man was smashed forward and then lifted by them and thrown over the edge into the swift water below.

“Is that not better?” Boeta called. “No more fucking whining.” (ch. 10, pg. 137)

As Smith notes wryly at the beginning: Boeta became a mercenary because “in the Congo there was no law.” Did the two of them become friends because there was some echo of Boeta’s psychopathy in Smith? I’d assume so, although Boeta nicknamed Smith “Smiler” because of “my sometimes fixed smile” when frightened (pg. 44).

Smith was frightened a lot at the beginning and you can understand why. His childhood and education in South Africa had taught him to shoot and his work in a copper-mine had taught him to face violent death. Or so he thought: “This memoire is … a brief record of a few months in the life of a cocky young man who thought he was afraid of nothing, but who soon learned all about fear.” (Introduction, pg. 6) If the Simba had been better shots or less superstitious, he might not have got out alive. But they were bad shots and reckless fighters, because they often believed that the spells of “medicine-men” had rendered them invulnerable to bullets. Big mistake. In The Godfather (1969), men “sleep with the fishes”. In Mad Dog Killers, they lie with the butterflies:

At the scene of the first contact with the medicine man and company, a fluttering vibration filled the air over the bodies, which were oozing dark blood from multiple gunshot wounds. Busy clouds of brilliant butterflies were whirling over the scene and dense concentrations of the insects sat sipping the oozing blood. The salts in the blood attracted them and the green flies. The butterflies always appeared in a very short time after blood was spilt in the tropical forest. The still moist air quickly took up and conveyed the smell of fresh blood. That cloying scent along with the sharper reek of cordite was filling my lungs as I watched the fluttering insects; they took me back to childhood, to the happy hunting of the earlier days. Then it was back to here and now. (ch. 5, pg. 55)

That’s a surreal description worthy of J.G. Ballard. Africa is a cruel and beautiful place, and the Congo is the dark heart of Africa. The mercenaries often behaved badly in the Congo, but the Simba and the black soldiers in the official Congolese army were usually far worse. Both the Simba and the Congolese army routinely “liberated” towns and villages by murdering the men and raping the women. As Smith says, he spent only “a few months” fighting there, but they’ve stayed with him for the rest of his life. Regrets? He has many. Killing in the hot blood of a fire-fight was one thing, but killing in cold blood was another. Sometimes he’s not sure why he remembers some deaths and not others: “Whatever it was that bothered me about that line of running men still haunts me more than fifty years on. Yet they were just a few of the many I killed.” (ch. 8, pg. 99) Unlike Smith, Boeta enjoyed killing anyone anywhere anytime. That’s why he stayed in. Smith got out.

At least, his body got out, but his mind has often returned. Decades later, he written this book about it, trying to exorcise his demons. The old black-and-white photos add to the sense of another place and another time, but the Congo is still at war and horrors are still taking place there. First come the bullets, then the butterflies.

George Orwell: English Rebel, Robert Colls (Oxford University Press 2013)

I didn’t find this a very well-written or coherent book, but I thought it had one big thing in its favour: it doesn’t treat Orwell like a saint. The world-famous author of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945) was not an infallible prophet nor a flawless logician. He contradicted himself. He criticized people for saying things that he would later say himself. He often got things wrong.

But who didn’t, particularly before and during the Second World War? And the irreverence shown by Robert Colls towards his subject seemed to me to deepen into hostility at times. Does the South Shields lad Colls have a chip on his shoulder about the Old Etonian Orwell? I don’t know, but all biographies are also autobiographies. If an anti-hagiography is the opposite of a hagiography, then Colls seems at times to be writing one. That’s definitely what John Baxter was doing in his biography of J.G. Ballard, but English Rebel is a better and more interesting book than that.

It’s also much more eclectic. I like books that can quote from the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety at one moment (pg. 224) and from Richmal Crompton at another:

There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ ’em jus’ a bit, but not so anyone’d notice, and there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves. (ch. 3, “Eye Witness in Barcelona”, pg. 95, quoting “William’s friend Henry” in Crompton’s William the Bad, 1930)

As a summary of politics in the 1930s, that isn’t so far off the mark. It certainly captures the spirit of Communism at a time when many intelligent and educated people thought that Communism was the only and ethical hope for the human race. Orwell agreed with Crompton, not with the intellectuals. As Colls points out, he disliked and distrusted intellectuals while being one himself and moving in intellectual circles.

But there’s another connection between Orwell and Crompton: they were both very good writers, still delighting and diverting readers long after their deaths. Orwell was the greater and more serious of the two, but literary criticism can’t explain either of them. It can’t say why they were such good writers and such pleasures to read. All it can do is discuss their ideas, their influences, their culture and their life-histories. That’s not enough and although Colls is a cultural historian rather than a literary critic or (worse) a literary theorist, English Rebel fails to explain Orwell’s greatness just as surely as every previous biography and literary analysis.

And “Englishness” is not a very interesting topic. England and the English can be, but that’s partly because they’re so varied. You might also that Englishness is unconsciousness. The people who want to analyse it or feel the need to go in search of it are outsiders in some way. Orwell was born in British India, which made him an outsider in one way. He went to Eton on a scholarship, which made him an outsider in another. And he had French ancestry, which made him an outsider in yet another.

But I’ve never seen any critics or biographers of Orwell make much of his Frenchness. It’s there in his features and must have been there in his brain and psychology too, because genetics influences both of those. And that’s where Englishness can get interesting: at the genetic and biological level. You won’t find any of that here and bio-criticism isn’t a big subject anywhere yet. It will be, sooner or later, and that’s when Orwell will be better understood. In the meantime, books like this are here to speculate and make suggestions. And despite his irreverence and hostility, Colls does seem to appreciate the greatness and the moral stature of his subject: “Orwell spent his life fighting those who wanted to ‘control life’ and ‘entirely refashion people’ ‘with an absolute authority which penetrates into a man’s innermost being’.” (ch. , “Life after Death”, pg. 224)

That final quote is from the Jacobins and the Jacobins are still with us, using ever more advanced technology to satisfy some very primitive urges for power and domination. Orwell understood the urges and prophesied the technology. This book isn’t worthy of Orwell, but I’m not sure any biography or critique could be. It’s eclectic and interesting all the same. And it’s got a good index and some photos I’d never seen before.

RSPB Handbook of the Seashore, Maya Plass (Bloomsbury 2013)

Possibly the best short guide to the seashore I’ve ever seen. There’s a good balance between informative text and attractive images. And while the photos are good for identification, the detailed and attractive line-diagrams by Marc Dando are good for understanding, whether it’s the internal anatomy of the green sea-urchin (Psammechinus miliaris) or the life-cycle of the common prawn (Palaemon serratus).

You don’t get so much interest so easily on land. Apart from insects, the strangest and most interesting terrestrial life tends to be microscopic. That’s not true of marine life and the seashore, where the outré is almost everyday. It’s a Lovecraftian place, from surreal sea-slugs and seductive sea-anemones to highly intelligent octopuses and highly idiosyncratic crabs. There’s beauty, like star ascidians (Botryllus schlosseri) and jewel anemones (Corynactis viridis), and grotesqueness, like sea-spiders (Nymphon gracile) and their relatives the barnacles (which are crustaceans, not molluscs). As Darwin wrote of barnacles: “The probosciformed penis is wonderfully developed… when fully extended it must equal between eight and nine times the entire length of the animal!” That quote begins the section on “Echinoderms” and Maya Plass has found a similarly quirky or enticing quote for every other section, whether it’s poetry by an obscure Victorian naturalist or prose by Dickens and Shakespeare.

Plass is not only writing in a long tradition of natural-history guides: she’s paying homage to that tradition. And I was glad to see a a chrestomathic crustaceologism from Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) heading the section on lobsters. His book celebrates the variety and variousness of water and the life it nourishes. More than a century later, the RSPB Handbook of the Seashore does exactly the same.

Queen and Not HeardThe African Queen, C.S. Forester (1935)

Ley Ho, Let’s Go!Britannia Obscura: Mapping Britain’s Hidden Landscapes, Joanne Parker (Vintage 2014)

Hymn PickingsThe Church Hymnary, Various (Oxford University Press 1927)

Clock, Stock and BiswellA Clockwork Orange: The Restored Edition, Anthony Burgess, edited by Andrew Biswell (Heinemann 2012)

Vid KidViolated by Video: The Eldritch Chills of an ’Eighties Childhood… from Video Nasties to Nazi Xploitation…, Paolo Nanderson (TransVisceral Books 2018)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR